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  • Identity Intersections and Transformers:A Transgender Autoethnographic Reflection
  • Elijah C. Nealy (bio)

The recent spate of "bathroom bills" and the 2016 U.S. Department of Education directive (and now its reversal) allowing transgender students to use the locker rooms and restrooms that match their affirmed gender make it clear that issues of identity are at the core of living as a man or woman, but arguably more so as a transgender man or woman, or gender queer or nonbinary person.1 Trans identities are continually negotiated and renegotiated in the context of everyday life—on the streets and subways, at professional conferences and in the classroom, at gas stations and corner delis, in restrooms and locker rooms, in our faith communities, at our children's elementary schools—anywhere and everywhere gender is considered salient.

Sociologist Erving Goffman used the metaphor of the theater to illustrate the ways we are constantly performing ourselves. In his framework, there is a front stage where we perform in public, such as participating in this forum or in my classroom. And there is a backstage—perhaps at home with our family.2 Yet for Goffman, even backstage we are still performing, or negotiating, our identities.

As I reflect on my journey, there has never been a time when I was not negotiating my gendered identity, whether it was during my childhood years as a "tomboy," my early adult life as a gender queer "butch" dyke, the beginning of my gender transition, or my more recent years living as a (transgender) man. [End Page 139]

For trans men, identity negotiation is not something that can be accomplished and left behind. Instead, we "perform" and "reenact" our gendered identities day in and day out in the varying relational contexts of our lives. Unlike the professional actor who leaves his identity behind him once the play is performed and the curtain falls, trans men play their role endlessly.

These day-to-day performances still carry tremendous stigma for transgender people—even the basic human performance of peeing. In discussing the social impact of stigma, Goffman describes that moment in a social interaction in which we meet someone and become aware that this person possesses an attribute that makes the person different from our self. When this difference is of a less desirable kind, Goffman suggests this person is "reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one."3 Goffman goes on to observe, "when that trait is manifest, it turns those of us he meets away from him, breaking the claim that his other attributes have on us … by definition, we believe the person with a stigma is not quite human."4


About six months after beginning testosterone treatment, I went for routine blood work at a lab in Greenwich Village, New York City. By this time, I was consistently being "read" as male in social situations. The facility was in a cramped basement room with low ceilings. It was late morning on a hot summer day.

I signed in and took a seat in the small crowded reception area.

A short while later, I heard my name, "Elijah," called.

As I moved toward the receptionist she began reviewing my computer file. A puzzled look came over her face.

"You're Elijah?" she asked.

I nodded yes.

"But it says 'female' here," she said.

I took a deep breath and began, "I'm a transgender man and my identity documents say male. …"

Her immediate frown almost stopped us both.

"My health insurance card still has an 'F' on it," I pointed out, "so I can be sure to have coverage if I need gynecological care."

Tapping her pencil repeatedly on the desk, she stared at me, and then asked in a voice loud enough for everyone in the waiting room to hear, "Well, what are you then?"


Bettcher writes, "If others do not accept my gender aspirations, then in effect they are not accepting me as a person. They are engaging in one of the most [End Page 140] fundamental forms of disrespect."5 Rendering a stigmatized person less than human permits, and even encourages, the harassment and violence many...